Nothing says Lions football quite like coming up short at just the wrong time and B.C. did just that against the Calgary Stampeders, seeing their playoff dreams die by a few links of the chain in a 33-23 loss.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Death by self-inflicted wounds
“It’s like the last play offensively, it was kind of a microcosm of the season. Pretty close, but just not quite enough.”
That’s what B.C. Lions quarterback Michael Reilly had to say in the aftermath of a seventh straight loss, one that proved fatal to his team’s playoff hopes.
Humans tend to be simple creatures. We best remember the last thing that happens and for Lions fans, that will be a scrambling Reilly coming up half a yard short on third-and-ten in the red zone. Thoughts of chains pulled taut and symbolically made into a noose will haunt the offseason.
Yet as much as that final play ended the Lions’ hopes and dreams, it isn’t what killed them. The Leos came up 10 points short in a game where they handed 10 points away. The fatal wounds were self-inflicted and B.C. was already bleeding out long before Reilly reached for the sticks.
In the final accounting, the Lions committed just seven penalties for 57 yards, but they were avoidable mistakes that came at the worst possible times. The first clearly bone-headed mistake was a chaotic too many men call at the end of the first half as Calgary attempted to punt, bringing about a fresh set of downs and allowing Rene Paredes to hit a field goal with zeroes on the clock.
Then in the fourth quarter came the deathblow. As electric receiver Lucky Whitehead broke out of a quiet night to once again play the hero, busting a long punt return touchdown to take a late lead, rookie linebacker Josh Woods introduced himself to the Lions’ fanbase in the worst possible way. In his first game ever, he committed not one, but two penalties on the return — a hold and an illegal block — negating the score and providing his team inescapable field position.
“I feel like the turning point was on special teams on that punt return. That kind of set us back, because we had a good momentum going up until that point and to just have those unfortunate calls go against us kind of put us back a bit,” receiver Jevon Cottoy noted post-game. “I feel like after that play, we just hit a wall and it kind of went downhill from there.”
Those infractions weren’t the only costly mistakes made — Reilly pointed to a string of penalties on an early drive that forced a field goal among other player errors, while the data-driven will rightfully roast Rick Campbell’s conservative approach of kicking a chip-shot field goal on the game’s first drive — but had just those two calls gone the way of the home team, playoffs would still be on the table.
Again, the team fell by the slimmest of margins and again it was squarely on their own shoulders.
“We’re a team that does some good things, but we don’t quite make enough plays to get it done,” head coach Rick Campbell explained at the podium. “You’re right about those mistakes. We don’t want those mistakes. They shouldn’t happen. But on the flip side, when you become a good enough team, you can be resilient enough to overcome some of those things.”
If you want to talk about a microcosm of a season right there, that was it. The Lions should have won more games. They had the talent for it and there aren’t enough complete teams in the CFL in 2021 to argue otherwise. But time and again, through penalties or play-calling or clock management or just poor play, they got in their own way and got knocked down.
This time, they just happened to fall on a knife.
A disagreement among gentlemen
The crowd in BC Place seemed somewhat leaner than usual, but those assembled were as rowdy as I’ve seen this season and I mean that in the best possible way. As a result, there was plenty of vocal unhappiness when Rick Campbell elected to go for it needing ten points on that fateful third down and Reilly came up short.
The consensus reaction was so negative that one fan — a self-professed reader of this column, no less — felt passionate enough to stick his head through the press box window and voice his displeasure. I won’t quote him directly here, but the word “moron” was tossed around in regards to the Lions’ coach.
I can appreciate the visceral reaction but at the risk of alienating a reader, I’m going to disagree with his premise. Rick Campbell absolutely made the right call going for the touchdown.
When needing two scores, you should always do the more difficult thing first and quite simply, it is a lot easier to hit a 50-yard field goal than a 50-yard Hail Mary. Campbell echoed that post-game and correctly indicated that with the amount of time remaining, the Lions weren’t going to get anywhere near that close to the end zone again. In a league where you can ostensibly kick a field goal from the spot of an onside recovery, that matters.
Campbell has been almost pathologically conservative throughout his career and this was not a risky choice. By every conceivable metric it was the correct decision, it just came up half a yard short.
Losers don’t get orange slices
It’s hard to decide what stings most about this particular loss. Is it another year without the playoffs, the close-but-no-cigar finish, or the fact it was the seventh straight defeat? None of the above, because what hurts me most about this particular loss is just how good the Lions’ offence was for most of it.
After weeks of mind-numbing ineffectiveness, B.C. came out of the gate looking like a well-oiled machine. Sure, the deep shot this team has thrived on never came to fruition, but for stretches they moved the ball with frightening efficiency. Reilly was delivering the ball with zip and taking whatever Calgary would give him, with every receiver making a play in turn.
It was beautiful and it’s been what was missing all season. It still wasn’t enough to get this team a shot at the postseason.
“When you get eliminated from the playoffs, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to make you feel better about it,” Reilly said of the performance. “That being said, I do appreciate the guys working their tails off tonight.”
The veteran finished 30-of-37 (81.1 percent) for 340 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 31 more in what might have been his best game of the year. Dominique Rhymes had his best game with six catches for 111 yards. Jevon Cottoy would not be denied a touchdown.
Any other week, the offence would have deserved considerably more positive press. This time, any praise feels cheap because the success was too little, too late.
The Butler did it
With that said, one player who does deserve special mention here is running back James Butler. It’s been a below average campaign for the young back and a downright awful year at time for the Lions’ running game, but Butler woke up Friday and chose violence.
If there was ever a player to be chosen for random drug testing, Butler would be it, because he suddenly looked like someone had sprinkled crack in his pre-workout. All night, he never went down on first contact and battled like a madman for every inch. He finished with 11 carries for 89 yards and seven catches for 36 yards, while also being stellar in pass protection.
For the first time all year, B.C. fed off their running back and the team put trust in him. It was a thing to behold and it may have been enough on its own to see Butler brought back next year.
When you are talking about the running game, you can’t forget to mention the offensive line and for the first time in more than two years I feel the big men up front deserve some genuine love.
B.C.’s starting five, along with David Knevel in relief for an injured Joel Figueroa, moved bodies in the run game and had an absolutely stellar day in pass protection. Calgary did get to Reilly for a couple strips, but those were the only two missteps on a night where the hoggies routinely gave their pivot five seconds or more to pick apart the defence — albeit with very little additional pressure coming from the Stampeders.
“I thought they did a great job tonight, as they have all year. They’ve been battling every single game that we played and those guys are more beat up than you know,” Reilly acknowledged after the game. “The offensive linemen around the entire league, not just our team, are guys that play through stuff that other people couldn’t even imagine. I have nothing but respect for them.”
The murder of the 2019 B.C. Lions was rightfully pinned on the offensive line and they’ve been middling for most of 2021, but when the autopsy is performed on this version of the Lions they won’t be found at fault. In the most vital of moments they had their best game and you won’t be able to try them twice.
Laying out the welcome mat
The storyline heading into this game was the return of Calgary’s star receiver Reggie Begelton’s return from the NFL, but most seasoned CFL viewers figured that would be overblown. After all, most returning stars take a while to reacclimatize after an NFL stint.
Not the case for Begelton apparently, as the former Green Bay Packer torched B.C. all night and had five catches for 82 yards and a touchdown, as well as a 21-yard carry by halftime.
The Lions simply had no answer for a player they no doubt spent all week preparing for. Begelton had his way with Marcus Sayles several times and got lost in T.J. Lee’s blindspot for a score despite being the most important target on the field. When B.C. did shift coverage to him, Kamar Jorden was more than happy to fit the role.
Begelton finished with 119 yards before suffering a scary injury late, but appears to be OK. That’s good news because the CFL is better off for him, but the Lions are worse for wear. Their highly-talented secondary has once again failed to neutralize a top-tier receiver and after a rocky losing streak for that group, they may no longer count among the CFL’s elite.
Working on the short game
I won’t waste any more breath on the Leos putrid run defence, which once again gave Ka’Deem Carey way too much room to operate, but I will spare a moment to commend the Stamps’ play-calling.
Dave Dickenson did an excellent job supplementing the run game with well-designed short passes and screens, as well as stretching the field with fly sweeps, taking advantage whenever B.C. tried to compensate for their lack of gap control with heavy run blitzes. Calgary’s final scoring drive, which got Malik Henry out in space, was a great example of this.
B.C. couldn’t adjust without getting gashed by Carey and it ultimately cost them.
Down and out
If you need a smile after another lost Lions’ season, file this one under oddities you don’t see every day.
The first quarter of this game suffered a long delay for what may have seemed like no apparent reason for those watching the broadcast, but an eagle-eyed viewer in the stadium may have spotted the root of the issue: the down box (that easily recognizable numerical counter wielded by the league’s stick crew) had been decapitated.
It wasn’t readily apparent how the stick had broken, but a bewildered official was left with two separate pieces. After some discussion, the remnants were hastily hid inside the hollow centre of the collapsible sideline advertisements like a mafia hit gone wrong and one unlucky official was sent running into the bowels of BC Place to retrieve a replacement. He came back with a much lower tech version, old school flipping numbers instead of sliding slats, and the game was allowed to continue.
The incident was quickly forgotten, but I had a chuckle over a game with millions of dollars worth of tech put into everything from equipment to high definition instant replay being brought to its knees by a busted weld on a $100 glorified stick.
Once more without meaning
Even though the slim path to the playoffs has disappeared, the Lions still have one more game to play and while he treads lightly so not to make excuses, Rick Campbell was surprisingly optimistic for a man on the hot seat.
“It’s tough right now. The name of the game is winning. But I view this team as a team that’s building with young people as opposed to an older team that’s on the decline,” he said. “I would say this is a team that has a chance to be on the rise.”
So what can fans expect in the finally meaningless matchup against the Edmonton Elks at BC Place next week? Many would hope for a showcase of young prospects and perhaps even a start for QB of the future Nathan Rourke, but while much can change in a week, expect to be let down once again.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to give us the best chance to win the game. It’s not going to be an experiment or a pre-season type thing,” Campbell said. “We owe it to ourselves, a lot of hard work has been put in, that we need to play the best roster we can and find a way to win a game.”